NIGHT AND FOG and SHOAH

Commissioned by Artforum‘s web site and published by them on December 8, 2010 in a somewhat different version. — J.R.

“The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed,” Stanley Kubrick reportedly said to screenwriter Frederic Raphael in the late 1990s. “Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t.” One of the most striking things about this remark is its placement of the Holocaust in the present and a film made half a century later in the past.

 

These are the priorities of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), 550 minutes long, widely and in some ways justly regarded as the greatest film about the Holocaust. But they’re also the priorities of Alain Resnais and Jean Cayrol’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), only thirty-one minutes long, which in many respects made Shoah possible. Shoah even quotes Night and Fog about forty-three minutes into the film — Resnais’s low-angle dolly following grassy railroad tracks that lead to an Auschwitz crematorium is virtually reprised and extended, though Resnais’ use of Eastmancolor is even more vivid.

 

One shouldn’t have to choose between these masterpieces. But it’s important to stress that they aren’t about precisely the same Holocaust and that their formal strategies for juxtaposing past and present are quite different.Read more »

Luc Moullet’s Short Manifesto

From Cinema Scope No. 45, Winter 2011. -– J.R.

As a postscript to and short commentary on the closing section of Ted Fendt’s interview with Luc Moullet in the previous issue of Cinema Scope, l’d like to propose that (a) Moullet’s two most recent shorts, Toujours moins and Chef-d’oeuvre?, provide a kind of summary of Moullet’s work as a whole, by focusing respectively on economy and art, and (b) the second of these actually fuses these two concerns, offering not only a digest of his oeuvre as both a filmmaker and a critic, but also a short manifesto that exalts the importance of shortness itself in relation to his particular talents.

Moullet’s best work as a filmmaker can generally be found in his shorts — which makes it all the more regrettable that the Moullet box set with English subtitles includes only his features, and the sole collection of his shorts on DVD (Luc Moullet en shorts, 2009) is untranslated. The most important exceptions to this rule are Genèse d’un repas (1978), arguably his most profound statement about economy, and Anatomie d’un rapport (1976), but it might be added that many of his other best features, such as Les contrabandières (1968), La comédie du travail (1987), and Parpaillon (1993), are effectively collections of thematically related shorts, while some of his thinnest – – e.g., Le prestige de la mort (2006) — seem to qualify as padded shorts.… Read more »

Ragged But Right [on UP DOWN FRAGILE]

This appeared in the July 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Up Down Fragile

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Laurence Côte, Marianne Denicourt, Nathalie Richard, Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette

With Côte, Denicourt, Richard, Anna Karina, André Marcon, Bruno Todeschini, Wilfre Benaiche, Enzo Enzo, and the voice of László Szabó

The inspiration of Up Down Fragile? The MGM low-budget films of the 50s that were shot in four or five weeks on sets left over from other films. In particular, a Stanley Donen movie, Give a Girl a Break [1953], a simple film shot in next to no time with short dance numbers. — Jacques Rivette in an interview

Entertainment does not…present models of utopian worlds, as in the classic utopias of Sir Thomas More, William Morris, et al. Rather the utopianism is contained in the feelings it embodies. It presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized. — Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia”

Out of Jacques Rivette’s 17 features to date — in which I include his 12-hour serial Out 1 (1970) as well as both parts of his Jeanne la pucelle (1994) — 9 are set in contemporary Paris.… Read more »

Lies About Lying (INFAMOUS)

From the Chicago Reader (October 13, 2006). — J.R.

Infamous **

Directed and written by Douglas McGrath

With Toby Jones, Daniel Craig, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Daniels, Peter Bogdanovich, Sigourney Weaver, and Hope Davis

Two recent features about Truman Capote, coincidentally made around the same time, concentrate on Capote’s work on his true-crime best seller In Cold Blood, about the slaying of a family in rural Kansas. Both suggest that Capote’s life and career were destroyed by the emotional strain of researching and writing that book, yet they’re fascinatingly different in what they try to do and in how they depict their subject. Capote – which professes to be based on Gerald Clarke’s standard biography of the same title — came out a year ago and won its lead actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Oscar. Infamous – which claims to be based on George Plimpton’s Truman Capote, a collection of gossipy sound-bites assembled in the same manner as his “oral histories” about Edie Sedgwick and Robert F. Kennedy — was released a year after it was completed to avoid comparisons with Capote. Now that it’s out, comparisons are in order — and not all of them are to Capote‘s advantage.… Read more »

Die Marquise von O… (1976 review)

This review appeared in the December 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. For whatever it’s worth, my favorite among Rohmer’s features remains, alas, his most unjustly neglected — Perceval le Gallois (1978), the feature he made immediately after Die Marquise von O… –J.R.

Marquise von O…, Die

West Germany/France, 1976
Director: Eric Rohmer

Probably the most faithful of all the disciples of André Bazin, Eric Rohmer has shared his mentor’s philosophical fascination with “ambiguity” in his criticism and films alike. A position derived from Catholic existentialism which adheres to a “realist” aesthetic whose prime model is the naturalistic novel as exemplified by Dos Passos, Hemingway and Hammett, this orientation is clearly at the root of his version of Kleist’s masterpiece, which subtly betrays the awesome energies of the original while maintaining an overall fidelity to its plot and characters that is rare in contemporary cinema. Widely and justifiably praised for its immaculate direction, acting, and visual sophistication, it can none the less be regarded as a Jamesian re-write of the novellas that dims the passion of the latter with a form of delicate detachment quite in keeping with the tenor of Rohmer’s Contes Moraux. A minor omission like the very Kleistian blood “gushing” from the mouth of a would-be rapist whom the Count “smashes” in the face with the hilt of his sword — a detail which the film tastefully keeps off-screen -– reveals this strategy on a rather trivial level; and the splitting in half of the Count’s childhood anecdote about the swan of which he is reminded by the Marquise -– so that its conclusion now comes at the end of the plot -– can easily be defended as a sensible dramatic expedient.… Read more »

Thinking about (Personal) History Lessons: The Movie Paintings of Manny Farber

This piece had a somewhat tortured history. Commissioned but rejected by Artforum (for reasons that were never explained) circa 1982, it first appeared in a special issue of New Observations (#36, 1983) edited by the late Gilberto Perez, entitled “Horses, Hegel and Film,” where by necessity the illustrations were relatively sparse. In its present form, it first appeared in the 12th issue of the online journal Rouge in 2008. — J.R.

1. Manny Farber, Negative Space (New York: Da Capo, 1998), p. 361. ‘The brutal fact is that they’re exactly the same thing’, Manny Farber replied in 1977 to an interviewer inquiring about the relationship between his dual activities as a painter and film critic. (1) The remark points to a two-part obsession that by now has persisted for more than four decades. A master at perceiving the delicate nuances of brutal facts, Farber has always had an uncanny knack for hitting on truths in a language of wisecracking braggadocio that eliminates any possibility of a dispassionate or precise scientific observation. With his feet firmly planted in the anonymous turf of an underground termite (to conflate two of his favourite terms), Farber paradoxically aims at a notion of bull’s-eye that can exist only in a marketplace context where objects and ideas compete for our attention.

Read more »

Black Window: Cornell Woolrich and Movies

From Film Comment, September-October 1984. — J.R.

Rear Window, The Leopard Man [see first two photos above], Phantom Lady, The Window, The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid. Considering that almost 30 features have been Cornell Woolrich adaptations, it seems a genuine anomaly that he should remain so shadowy a figure. He is as central to the thriller as Olaf Stapledon is to science fiction, and has been comparably eclipsed by a singularity that exceeds and surpasses some genre expectations while grievously falling short of certain others. Despite all the purple prose, tired rewrites, and preposterous plots that crop up in his fiction, perhaps no other writer handles suspense better, or gives it the same degree of obsessional intensity. More soft-boiled than hard-boiled in the depiction of his heroes and heroines, Woolrich nonetheless seems central to the overall pessimism of film noir in the violent contrasts of his moods and the dark tempers of his villains.

Webster’s New Collegiate gives three definitions of dreadful:  “(1) (adjective) inspiring fear or awe, (2) (adjective) distressing, shocking; very distasteful, (3) (noun) a morbidly sensational story or periodical; as, a penny dreadful.”  Woolrich assumes all these meanings and invents a few more of his own.… Read more »

Female Trouble [MONKEY SHINES: AN EXPERIMENT IN FEAR]

From the July 29, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

MONKEY SHINES: AN EXPERIMENT IN FEAR

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by George A. Romero

With Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci, and Janine Turner.

You’ve got to get through a few layers of foam rubber before you reach what’s good (or better than good) about George Romero’s new feature. There’s a series of obstacles — cultural, corporate, ideological, stylistic, aesthetic, commercial — standing in the way of what the movie is doing at its best; they may not count for much in the long run, but it’s better to be forewarned and forearmed.

First there’s the problem of the title. I appreciate that the producers did not want to suggest that the movie is a comedy — as sticking to the title of Michael Stewart’s source novel, Monkey Shines, would have done. So a subtitle is understandable as a means of labeling the contents. But An Experiment in Fear? Whose experiment and whose fear? The phrase describes nothing in the film (except for a brief undeveloped scene with a rodent and a beady-eyed behaviorist) and nothing you can say about the film (except as an easy platitude).… Read more »

Kieslowski’s RED

From the Chicago Reader (December 16, 1994). — J.R.

Red

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieslowski

With Irene Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Frederique Feder, and Jean-Pierre Lorit.

A film of mystical correspondences, Red triumphantly concludes and summarizes Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy by contriving to tell us three stories about three separate characters all at once; yet it does this with such effortless musical grace that we may not even be aware of it at first. Two of the characters are neighbors in Geneva who never meet, both of them students — a model named Valentine (Irene Jacob) and a law student named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit )– and the third is a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who lives in a Geneva suburb and whom Valentine meets quite by chance, when she accidentally runs over his German shepherd.

Eventually we discover that Auguste and the retired judge are younger and older versions of the same man (neither of them meet, either). Another set of correspondences is provided when, in separate scenes, Valentine and the judge are able to divine important facts about each other: he correctly guesses that she has a younger brother driven to drug addiction by the discovery that his mother’s husband is not his real father; she correctly guesses that he was once betrayed by someone he loved — which also happens to Auguste during the course of the film.… Read more »

Off Color [Kieslowski's WHITE]

From the Chicago Reader (June 17, 1994). — J.R.

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_fYv3dsEBzEI/SV8T_AtuQBI/AAAAAAAAAOk/sjS6Gy6tgCU/s400/kieslowski_white.jpg

** WHITE

(Worth seeing)

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieslowski

With Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delphy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr, Grzegorz Warchol, and Jerzy Nowak.

“Imagine a kind of filmmaking that’s truly in tune with the ways you think and relate to other people. A deeply humane kind of filmmaking, but free from ‘humanist’ lies and sentimental evasions. Not a dry, ‘realistic’ kind of filmmaking, but one in which all the imaginative and creative efforts have gone into understanding the way we are. A kind of filmmaking as sensitive to silence as to speech, and alert to the kind of meanings we prefer to hide away. To my knowledge, only two directors in the world are currently making films like that. One is Krzysztof Kieslowski in Poland. The other is Edward Yang in Taiwan.”

These rousing words by Tony Rayns in the June issue of Sight and Sound were just what I needed to read after returning last month from Cannes, where wonderful films by Yang and Kieslowski about contemporary life were showing in competition. They were the two best competing films that I saw, though neither won any prizes.… Read more »

Eurofilm [Kieslowski's BLUE]

From the Chicago Reader (February 11, 1994). — J.R.

*** BLUE

(A must-see)

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz

With Juliette Binoche, Benoit Regent, Florence Pernel, Charlotte Very, Helene Vincent, Emmanuelle Riva, and Philippe Volter.

Indisputably the work of a master, to a much greater degree than anything else around at the moment, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s first feature without reference to his native Poland is sufficiently contemporary and allegorical to take the future of Europe, and a “unified” Europe at that, as one of its themes. Palpably concerned with loss and regeneration, suffering and transcendence, Blue calls to mind some of the better late works of Ingmar Bergman in its powerful sense of dramatic concentration; it doesn’t have quite the undertow of neurosis that presumably made those films so exemplary for Woody Allen, but it does have a much bolder grasp of the movements and vagaries of consciousness.

In the opening moments of Blue the leading character, Julie (Juliette Binoche), loses both her husband, a famous French composer, and her five-year-old daughter in a car crash; the remainder of the film charts her mental and spiritual recovery. The film’s remarkable economy is already apparent in the opening shot — a close-up of the spinning right front wheel of the car, seen from behind, as it speeds down a highway.… Read more »

An American in Paris [ROUND MIDNIGHT] (previously unpublished)

Part of my 1987 application for the job of film reviewer at the Chicago Reader consisted of writing three long sample reviews for them in March and/or April — only one of which was published by them (Radio Days), although, as I recall, they paid me for all three. (Writing these pieces in Santa Barbara, I was limited in my choices of what I could write about.) I only recently came across the two unpublished reviews, of Platoon and Round Midnight, in manuscript, although I recall that I did appropriate certain portions of them in subsequent reviews. Otherwise, the first publications of these pieces are on this site. — J.R.

***ROUND MIDNIGHT

Written by Bertrand Tavernier and David Rayfiel

Directed by Tavernier

With Dexter Gordon, François Cluzet, Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, and Martin Scorsese.

I just can’t take that bullshit, you dig? They want everybody who’s a Negro to be an Uncle Tom, or Uncle Remus, or Uncle Sam, and I can’t make it. It’s the same all over, you fight for your life — until death do you part, and then you got it made.Read more »

A Little Transcendence Goes a Long Way [MILLION DOLLAR BABY & THE AVIATOR]

From the December 4, 2004 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Million Dollar Baby

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Paul Haggis

With Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank, Jay Baruchel, and Mike Colter

The Aviator

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by John Logan

With Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Adam Scott, and Ian Holm

Despite his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood, like Martin Scorsese, is at the mercy of his scripts. But in Million Dollar Baby he’s got a terrific one, adapted by Paul Haggis from Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner.

This book was the first published work by Jerry Boyd, writing under the pseudonym F.X. Toole, after 40 years of rejection slips. Boyd had been a fight manager and “cut man,” the guy who stops boxers from bleeding so they can stay in the ring, and he was 70 when the book came out; he died two years later, just before completing his first novel. This movie is permeated by those 40 years of rejection, and the wisdom of age is evident in it as well. Henry Bumstead, the brilliant production designer who helped create the minimalist canvas   — he was art director on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and has been working for Eastwood since 1992 — will turn 90 in March, and Eastwood himself will be 75 a couple months later.… Read more »

A Free Man [Clint Eastwood's WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART]

Posted in Moving Image Source, December 1, 2009. This is the second time I wrote at length about White Hunter, Black Heart, and this essay was reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinema; the earlier piece, written 19 years earlier, is available here. [August 31 footnote: After watching Eastwood's embarrassing and often fumbling impromptu speech at the Republican National Convention last night, I treasure his performance in this spectacularly underrated movie even more.] — J.R.

“It’s the film of a free man.” Roberto Rossellini’s celebrated defense of Charlie Chaplin’s most despised film, A King in New York (1957) — a film so reviled that it goes unmentioned in Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography — is a sentence that frequently comes to mind about some of the features directed by Clint Eastwood, especially over the past couple of decades. Eastwood has in fact carved out a singular niche for himself that affords him the sort of artistic and conceptual freedom that no one else in Hollywood can claim. Starting with the fact that he doesn’t test-market his movies and indulge in the sort of hasty post-production revisions that limit the range of his colleagues, he’s a director who can choose both his subjects and how he deals with them.… Read more »

The Dreamboat With No Name [THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY]

From the Chicago Reader (June 23, 1995). — J.R.

It’s amazing what an Oscar can do. Clint Eastwood’s career as a filmmaker was viewed by many as a cranky, uneven enterprise until he was anointed by the academy for Unforgiven. Now it’s clear that in many quarters he can do no wrong, even though A Perfect World and The Bridges of Madison County show no particular improvement in his work. (For starters, both films are longer than they need to be.) His skill in realizing and giving shape to the scripts of others is sometimes praised so highly it’s as if people thought the movie had emerged full-blown from his Zeus-like head. Whatever the achievements of The Bridges of Madison County (and they aren’t to be sneezed at), there’s a strong temptation to credit Eastwood with resuscitating the star system, the Hollywood tearjerker, and classical mise en scene (as I’ve done in my own capsule review). Yet at best he’s performing yeoman service on a so-so adaptation of a lousy novel, plunking his customary persona in the middle of it as if that were all it needed to achieve greatness.

Let’s face it, the danger of the star system is that it’s predicated to some degree on a blind worship of power; we’re encouraged to rationalize imperfections, slide over contradictions, and go with the oceanic flow.… Read more »